Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Youth" pills, hawked online, win over top scientists

The old "ad hominem" fallacy at work: A thing is true because of the person who said it

For centuries, shady salesmen have pushed nostrums claimed to conquer that eternal scourge, aging. Virtually all have been garbage. China's king Zhao Mei may have even died from his own "immortality pills" 2,000 years ago, archaeologists say. But one brand of pills hawked on the Internet as containing "youth-prolonging" molecules has a curious distinction. A Harvard Medical School biologist who is a leading expert on aging takes them daily, persuaded by his own research that they may work, according to people familiar with his activities. He also once served as consultant to the pills' maker, but said he did so at no charge.

A small but growing band of people, hearing of his use of the pills, has followed his lead in hopes of living longer and more vigorouslyas have a diverse array of animals on which the pills' key ingredient has been tested. A Nobelprize winning physicist counts himself among the converts. The capsules in question are called Longevinex (longevinex.com).

The Harvard researcher, David Sinclair, has said in interviews that he takes supplements containing the ingredient, called resveratrol. But he wouldn't specify which of the more than 20 available brands he takes, or advise their use to others. The medical school's rules forbid doing that, an article in the June 22, 2004 Harvard Gazette said. Nonetheless, three people familiar with Sinclair's activities said his brand of choice has been Longevinex.

Grapes and red wine also contain resveratrol, but far too little for these products to confer the dramatic lifespan boost seen in animal studies, researchers say. Nonetheless, even moderate alcohol drinking is tied to slightly higher lifespan in humans, according to a study in the Dec. 1125 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

But pills may have much more resveratrol, so some people want themthough their effects are little studied, and how the substance works is still debated. Confusion has set in among potential buyers of these supplements, thanks to a slew of competing and contradictory claims from the manufacturers. The silence from Sinclair, perhaps the bestknown researcher of resveratrol's effects, hasn't helped. He declined to comment for this article.

Enigmatic tests

A few years ago, Sinclair conducted tests that suggested Longevinex worked far better than a dozen competing products, according to a news article in the Feb. 27, 2004 issue of the research journal Science. Details of the results haven't been published or opened to the wider scientific community's scrutiny.

Around then, Sinclair has said he also served as a consultant to Longevinex's maker; all this took place during the product's development, according to the company president. But Sinclair announced in a mailing at the end of 2003 that he had cut the tie because the company had used his name in publicity. He later launched his own company, Sirtris, to develop a related prescription product.

Nonetheless, he keeps taking the prescriptionfree Longevinex, according to an email attributed to him by Justin Loew, treasurer of the Immortality Institute, a San Franciscobased nonprofit group that promotes antiaging research.

Last November, Loew said in an online forum that Sinclair had emailed him: "I take 4 pills of longevinex with bfast and 4 at dinner, but I don't recommend anyone else take any resveratrol pills until we know more." (Note: late last month, the manufacturer raised the amount of resveratrol per capsule, so Sinclair's reported eight pills would be equivalent to 3.2 now. Either way, his reported regimen amounts to about 320 mg daily. Three pills daily would cost about $3.50 a day currently.)

Bill Sardi, president of Resveratrol Partners LLC, maker of Longevinex, confirmed Loew's account. Sinclair told The New York Times in early November that he has used resveratrol for three yearsabout the same length of time Longevinex has existed. He added that his wife, parents, and ``half my lab'' of two dozen members pop resveratrol too.

To some observers, the bets Sinclair makes for his own body are far more persuasive than any recommendations or nonrecommendations he might have for the rest of us. "Sinclair is a Harvard dude, okay?" one user of the Web forum wrote. "We can debate all day, but the proof that the guy takes the stuff is good enough for me."

A similar sentiment, expressed more reservedly, came from a 2004 Nobel Laureate in physics, Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. He said he takes Longevinex. That Sinclair uses it was "certainly one of the things that impressed me," he added, as did a recent study on resveratrol by Sinclair in the research journal Nature. While not a biologist, "I know how to read critically," Wilczek added; as far as the pills go, "there doesn't seem to be much possible downside, and the upside is very considerable."

Not everyone agrees.

A downside?

"The right place now with resveratrol is to say that this is really intriguing data, but mice aren't humans," Brent Bauer, director of the complementary and integrative medicine program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told The Wall Street Journal in late November, after the latest spate of major resveratrol studies were published.

"Do we know the right dosage? No. Do we know the side effects? No. Do we know if there are potential contaminants? No," said Tod Cooperman, president of consumerlab.com, a provider of independent test results, in a National Public Radio interview in November. "Personally, I would wait."

Resveratrol has been tied to both greater lifespan and vigor in animals. Since 2003, it has been found to extend lifespan in worms and flies by nearly 30 percent; fish and yeast by almost 60 percent; and obese mice by an estimated 15 percent, though that study, by Sinclair and colleagues, is unfinished.

Hope that humans might benefit similarly stems from the consistency of the animal results, and the fact that humans and other animals are genetically closely related. Ninetynine percent of genes are similar in mice and humans, for example.

But resveratrol's effects on human lifespan are unknown because our relatively long lifespans make studies difficult. Some anecdotal reports have sufficed to raise eyebrows, though. Sardi said some users of his product have reported some reversal of hair graying. An editor of World Science (which has no ties to anyone selling resveratrol) tried it and experienced the same thing.

As far as ill effects, researchers say the jury is out, but nothing has raised alarms yet. "About 10,000 people in this country take this product with no apparent side effects," the Harvard Gazette article quoted Sinclair saying.

Compared to what Sinclair reportedly takes, fish and mice in the longevity studies got doses roughly five to seven times higheradjusting for their weightwith no reported problems. In rat studies, researchers found that they had to multiply those higher doses again, by somewhere between 10 and 30, for harmful effects to become evident. But no longterm safety studies have been done in humans, or with specific commercial products. Sardi recommends that his not be taken by growing children or pregnant women, or simultaneously with other medications.

Just why Sinclair's tests evidently favored Sardi's product is unclear. Sardi has commissioned some tests of his own, with similar results, but using a methodology whose merits scientists have since debated.

Sardi says his advantage is that his capsules are specially made to keep the molecule stable, and competitors' aren't. But a June 2005 study in the journal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Bulletin tested five competing brands and found that they contained close to the labeled amounts of resveratrol; the makers apparently hadn't lied about the content. Sardi counters that his and Sinclair's tests assessed not only the resveratrol content, but its biological activity. The issue remains unresolved.

James Betza competitor of Sardi's and general manager of Biotivia Bioceuticals (bioflu.com)said he believes Sardi and Sinclair may have, or have had, a "financial relationship." Sinclair wrote in his 2003 mailing that he "never received any money" from Sardi's firm. But he didn't say whether he might have been compensated in other ways, such as discounted pills. Was he? Sardi, asked that this week, became enraged and refused to answer. His company lawyer, Tracy Augustine, said there was no compensation of any kind, and that Sardi may have reacted angrily because "He hears that all the time... At some point it got to him."

Other marketers of resveratrol supplements include Biotivia, which boasts the highest resveratrol content per pill; andamong those whose resveratrol content was verified in the 2005 studyFood Science of Vermont (fslabs.com); Nutraceutical (nutraceutical.com) and Source Naturals (sourcenaturals.com).


New perils of smoking while pregnant

Women who smoke while pregnant may cause permanent cardiovascular damage to their children that could heighten the offspring's risk for a stroke and heart attack, US researchers say. Doctors long have known about health dangers for babies whose mothers smoked while pregnant, but the new Dutch study showed that these children as young adults tended to have thicker walls of the carotid arteries in the neck. This thickness can be used to determine a person's level of atherosclerosis, the process in which deposits build up in the inner lining of an artery, increasing the likelihood of stroke and heart attack.

"There are still substantial numbers of mothers who smoke during pregnancy," Dr Cuno Uiterwaal at the University Medical Centre Utrecht said. "This is just another reason for expectant mothers not to smoke."

Uiterwaal's team examined 732 people who were born from 1970 to 1973. They found that the children of the 215 women who had smoked while pregnant had thicker walls of the carotid arteries than children whose mothers did not smoke during pregnancy. The people whose mothers had smoked the greatest number of cigarettes while pregnant had thicker arterial walls than those whose mothers smoked fewer cigarettes, they found. "There is the possibility that the compounds in tobacco smoke go through the placenta and directly damage the cardiovascular system of the fetus," Uiterwaal said in a statement. "The damage appears to be permanent and stays with the children."

The findings were presented at an American Heart Association conference in Orlando.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

Trans fats:

For one summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and the evidence of lasting harm from them is dubious. By taking extreme groups in trans fats intake, some weak association with coronary heart disease has at times been shown in some sub-populations but extreme group studies are inherently at risk of confounding with other factors and are intrinsically of little interest to the average person.